Systemic racism is fact, not theory Skip to content

Systemic racism is fact, not theory

Many people are arguing that systemic racism no longer exists in the United States, and that talking about it makes things worse. Ken Wolf disagrees, on both counts.

3 min read
Photo by Rolande PG / Unsplash

Well, my Republican friends and opponents are at it again.

Their newest distracting cry of “ain’t it awful” is their attack on critical race theory – “the latest malignancy unleashed on our society and political system by predatory nihilists of the left,” according to friend Winfield’s mild language in his July 21 Ledger column.

Earlier, in a July 9 column, Republican District Chair Greg Delancey criticized the National Education Association (NEA) for “declaring war on those looking to keep critical race theory out of the schools.” He then praised Republicans for pre-filing bills in Kentucky to “ban critical race theory from public schools and post-secondary education curriculum.”

Critical race theory, says Wikipedia, is a “body of legal scholarship” challenging the notion that laws against prejudice could end racism. Scholars in the 1970s and 1980s suggested that civil rights laws of the 1960s did not end discrimination because “race can intersect with other things (such as gender and class) to produce complex combinations of power and disadvantage.”

The fact that some of the critics of these civil rights laws were Marxists does not negate the existence of systemic racism in our society. Calling something Socialist or Marxist is an emotional tactic used by many Republicans to scare their base into voting “correctly.”

These are labels, not arguments.

And the same is true of the constant repetition of the phrase “critical race theory.” It is a “red herring,” a political term “intended to distract from the main issue.” Critical race theory is not taught in any public school – it is generally studied in graduate school programs.

What is taught in some public secondary schools (and should be in all) is the history and presence of systemic racism in America: the existence of cultural attitudes and practices that did and still do prevent many Americans from being treated justly. Slavery ended, but was replaced by segregation and Jim Crow laws and customs that kept black Americans from gaining wealth, voting, securing good jobs, and feeling safe in their homes and streets.

Teaching this should promote racial healing, not “hatred,” as many Republicans want us to believe.

Racism is not primarily caused by individuals who discriminate. It is embedded in our American culture, despite laws against it. It is not merely “an obvious biological concept,” as Dr. Rose proclaimed.

Whatever the biological differences among humans, the concept of race has been used for centuries as a way of justifying and explaining our color consciousness. It helped light-skinned Europeans justify their belief that they were not only superior in power and material wealth to those with various shades of non-white skin, but were also morally and intellectually superior.

So here are some of the ways systemic or institutional racism has affected many African Americans past and present:

  • Social Security originally excluded domestic and agricultural workers, many of whom were black. This was done to get the act approved by southern Democrats.
  • After World War II, the G.I. Bill helped white Americans veterans secure mortgages, but “federal policy said that the very presence of a black resident in a neighborhood reduced the value of homes there.” This made it difficult for blacks to get mortgages. This is a classic example of racism embedded in an institution. Those who enforced this rule were not themselves personally prejudiced against blacks.
  • The “War on Drugs” for decades targeted “one type of cocaine” used by poor blacks, but not another used by wealthier white people. Hence more African Americans were imprisoned. As recently as 2018, blacks arrested for marijuana possession numbered 567 per 100,000 residents while similar arrests of whites were only 156 per 100,000.

Some of these laws and practices were changed, but the lives of many black families have been diminished for generations, affecting their ability to create wealth and pass it on to their children.

These examples of racism should be studied, not because all whites are personally racist, but because disturbing inequality is part of our history and our present life.

We need justice for all. Truth instead of scary lies will help us provide this.

(to be continued)


Written by Ken Wolf, and originally appearing in the Murray Ledger & Times. "Winfield" is Winfield Rose, a retired Murray State political science prof.

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